My grades in “conduct” and “effort” were always Fs. But, for the thousandth time, I would try to do better. Clean slate. I would begin again. I would try to “apply” myself. And although everything else was more interesting to me than Religion, Reading, English, Spelling Arithmetic, History and Civics, Geography, Social Studies, Science, or Penmanship, if I worked hard and stayed out of trouble maybe I could do all right. All my “academic” work came pretty easily to me, especially spelling and penmanship. That’s where I could really shine, and without ever cracking a book. I was the class champ in both spelling and penmanship, more than once. But like I said, there was no effort involved, no study. I could just do it. It was easy. It was conduct and effort that were the real challenges. I’ve been looking at my old report cards and it’s incredible to me that year after year, quarter after quarter there are “Fs” in every box labeled “conduct” and “effort.” It’s really unbelievable. And when there wasn’t an “F” there was an “X,” which was even worse than an “F.” An “X” meant your kid is failing in Conduct and Effort and “We request a meeting with the parent.” Yeah, I had a bunch of “Xs”, too And it wasn’t bad enough that I was getting all F’s in conduct and effort. Sister had to up the ante after some earlier fiasco that caught us in the middle again. And she did. “Mr. Stanizzi, you come up here right now,” she said, holding her fountain pen out toward me. I remember I didn’t get it at first. Why is she handing me her pen? Then it dawned on me as I slowly made my way to the front of the class, why she was stabbing the air between us with her pen. She was going to make me write the Fs on the report card. And I was right. “You take this pen, Mister, and write an F in that box next to conduct.” Oh, you bitch! You meanspirited bride of Jesus. What the hell! It was humiliating, making me do that. It really was brutal. In front of the whole class?! What a mean, nasty, unnecessary way to treat a kid. I remember grinning and pretending to laugh it off, but there was nothing funny about this nasty move. I was terrified and, worse, embarrassed, but I couldn’t let the kids in the class know that. What a mess. And the really, really bad thing about all of this was that I actually believed I was a bad kid and that I was getting my “just desserts,” one of Sister Anthony Mary’s many quips that I didn’t understand at the time, but which annoyed the hell out of me anyway. Another of her favorites was, “You’re trying. Very trying.” Apparently, I was “trying,” though I never really got that one either. Not until much later. Anyway, I wrote the Fs in the appropriate boxes, trying to make them look like Sister’s so my mother and father would not catch drift of this nightmare. I didn’t have to worry about them finding out from Sister because, the truth is, the nuns could do whatever the hell they wanted to do, and without ever having even the slightest inkling about informing my mother and father. They didn’t ever have to be held accountable to anyone. Imagine that? That’s how it was. They were the law. They answered to no one, except maybe to Father Shanley, but what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, right? So yeah. Straight Fs in “conduct” and “effort” written with my own hand…with a pen, a RED pen, not a pencil. What an incredible mess. And the truth is that I thought Sister was truly at the end of her rope with me. I also thought that she might have run out of ideas, punishments devised to make me a better kid. But she wasn’t. She had more really nasty stunts to pull on me in the hopes that I’d finally learn how to behave. When the next report cards came out I got called up in front of the class again to write the Fs on my report card. Old news, I know. But she was good, Sister Maria Richard, fat, bitch-faced Maria Richard. She was good. This time, she had a new tactic. She was really going to teach me a lesson this time around. She didn’t hand me her fancy-dancy, red-inked fountain pen. Instead she handed me a regular looking pen that, as I got closer, I could see, by the color of the cap, was a RED pen. I was shocked. Talk about mean. Unbelievable. Another red pen!! But what could I do? Nothing. I was trapped again. My hand was shaking and my brain was all mixed up with anger and fear and sadness. What I wanted to do was stab her with the pen a million times, or punch her in her big, idiotic, red face. But I didn’t. What I did was write the F, in red fucking ink, in the box marked “Conduct.” And man, that F looked really, really bad on that manila report card. It was the only thing you could see. It looked permanent as hell. A big bright red F! It leapt out at you. And I was screwed. When I got home no one was there. There was never anyone there when I got home from school anyway. They were both still at work. But I had to move fast. I had to somehow get rid of the evidence of my irrepressible badness. I grabbed a pencil and licked the eraser until it was good and wet and then I started to erase the F. But, to my absolute horror and shock, instead of making the F go away, all I did was wear a hole in my fucking report card where the F had been. A big hole, bigger that the square where the F was. And that was bad. What the hell was I going to do now? The hole in my report card made all my badness doubly bad. Not only did I always get Fs in conduct, but then I proved I deserved the Fs by trying erase them and tearing a hole in the stupid report card. And all the effort to remove the F wouldn’t have mattered anyway because Sister had called my mother at work and told her the whole ugly story, recapping the failures and screw ups of yet another semester in the sanctified hallways of St. Mary’s School. Most stuff that happened at school happened in secret. What I mean is that the nuns would do things to me that I knew that they knew that they should never let my parents know. They weren’t stupid. They knew they shouldn’t have been doing some of the things they were doing to me, but they just kept quiet and tortured me in private. It took me a long time to figure that out. But I did figure it out, and it just made me hate them even more. I mean, I figured if I went home and blamed the nuns of stuff that was happening in school, my parents would immediately take the side of the nuns, and assume it was as bad or worse than they said it was. Anyway, my mother was gunning for me the very second she walked in. She wasn’t even in the door and she’s running her mouth. “Where is that goddam report card you little son of a bitch?” I walked – very slowly – to the kitchen table, picked it up, and gave it to her. She opened it and of course the first thing – the only thing -- she noticed was the big hole. “What the hell is this?! What the HELL IS THIS?! There’s a hole in this report card! You tried to erase the F?! Goddam you, you little good for nothing. I’m gonna kill you!” That’s when she started swinging, and she managed to get in a few good shots, but I was quicker than she was, and I bolted out of the kitchen, into my room, and under my bed in about one second. She thundered in behind me with a broom, which she started waving under the bed hoping to get a piece of me with the broom handle. But I was way back in the corner where I usually went and where she couldn’t reach me. Soon enough she called it quits and went out mumbling that crap about Wait until your father sees this. Oh man…what a disaster. I was bad in school. I was bad at home. I was a terror in the neighborhood. And I was exhausted. It was a vicious cycle. I’d screw up, and if Sister thought she could make my life more miserable by calling home, that’s what she’d do. My father would holler. My mother would beat my ass. And the next day it would all start again. If my parents got wind of what was happening in school, I’d catch hell at home. If the nuns knew what a bad kid I was at home they’d make life even more miserable for me in school, trying to make me behave more like Jesus. I was trapped. And this went on all the way through 8th grade. I wasn’t “one” of the bad kids. I was “the” bad kid. And after a while, the nuns didn’t know what to do with me. They tried isolating me. They tried pairing me with a “good” kid to see if the goodness would rub off. They tried taking me out of school all together and making me go to school at the Convent on Saturday mornings. Oh man, how I hated that. I mean I loved not going to school during the week. That meant I got to stay with Sosie, and that was glorious and peaceful. No nuns. No parents. No kids. Just me and Sosie. But then Saturday would roll around and my father would drop me off at the convent, where a nun would stand over me trying to frighten me into learning things that I just wasn’t going to learn, no matter what they did. The Saturday thing didn’t last long. I want to say, I went to the convent on Saturday maybe three or four times. I don’t know. Somebody must have said something about how you can’t just take the kid out of school like that. I don’t know. The convent stuff just ended one day. And I was glad, mostly. I missed staying with Sosie, and I certainly didn’t miss going to the convent on Saturdays. Anyway, when I got back into school nothing had changed. I was still the bad kid and the nuns were at a loss to fix me. Remember I said they tried isolating me? Yeah. Well. Here’s how that played out. Sister wrote the word “boycott,” along with its definition on a piece of paper. Then she made stinky-blue mimeographed copies and gave one to every kid in the class, explaining that boycott was what they were to do to me. Boycott me in the classroom, in the school yard, in the lavatory…everywhere. No one was allowed to speak to me or they’d be punished. And this was one of those perfect examples of how I couldn’t possibly tell my parents what was going on. Imagine? Hey, Mom and Dad, Sister told everyone in the whole school that I was so bad that they should all boycott me. That would be a train wreck. They’d think, My kid is so bad that the nuns don’t even want anyone speaking with him. Then the hell I’d catch at home would be worse than the hell I was caught up in at school. Imagine that. Recess comes. Everyone goes out to the playground, and they’re all in boycott mode, every kid in the class knowing that it is against the rules to be anywhere near me. Incredible, huh? It didn’t just feel bad, the not talking to me part. It also felt bad because I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I know. You don’t think about that part right? All the kids in the class know what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to go about their playing just like always, only with one minor rule change – no talking to Johnnie Stanizzi. Fine. Easy enough. But what about me? What the hell was I supposed to do? I could stand up against the anchor fence and try to be invisible while I watched them play kickball. I could lean against the building or sit on one of the windowsills of the first floor and try to be invisible. I could just walk all around the playground, trying not to look at anybody so they wouldn’t be nervous about getting caught looking at me. Or I could do what I did. The fire escape stairs were way off on the far side of the playground, facing away from the kids. And that’s where I went. I could walk close to the building and make my way over to the fire escape with no one even noticing me. Then I could sit on the second or third step and stare at the backs of the gray apartment buildings that were next to the school, or I could close my eyes and daydream about the river. Either way, I was far enough out of the way that I didn’t have to see any of the kids and they didn’t have to see me. This went on for weeks. Of course, eventually the school year would go by, painfully, terrifyingly slow. But it would go by. Then I’d be free. My mother and father both worked, and so I got shipped off to Sosie’s house in Hartford. It was so marvelous. Just perfect for me. No one in the world except me and Sosie. No one yelling and screaming at me, telling me how bad I was. No one hitting me or making me do chores. All I knew was that Sosie loved me so much. I knew that. I didn’t know that about anyone else in the world. It was like our secret. And it was so quiet there, too. We didn’t talk much. We didn’t have to. There wasn’t much to say, and so we didn’t talk. It wasn’t like the nuns or my mother, just blathering on and on and on about nothing anyone is interested in hearing. Just Sosie and me all alone in the world. All I did all day was play all by myself with my toys or help Sosie in the kitchen. Pluck a chicken. Make macaroni from scratch. Cook soup. Run wet clothes through the wringers of the washing machine. Try to catch pigeons on the porch. I truly do not know how it could have been any better. Long slow days. The windows open. The traffic sounds and smells of the avenue wafting through the apartment. At night the healing sound of the tick tick tick of the clock on top of the refrigerator. It was like I was boycotting the world and that was perfectly OK with me.